The White House is pressing ahead with its stated goal of persuading the UN Security Council to pass far-reaching sanctions to punish Iran for refusing to suspend its nuclear research program. Sanctions are what President George W. Bush is referring to when he pledges to nervous US allies that he intends to “continue to work together to solve this problem diplomatically.” The non-diplomatic solution in this framing of the “problem,” presumably, would be airstrikes on nuclear facilities in the Islamic Republic.

With its portrayal of UN and unilateral US sanctions as part of a diplomatic effort, the Bush administration has successfully confused much media coverage of the Iranian-Western confrontation over Iran’s enrichment of uranium. Sanctions are punitive measures, not serious diplomacy, and the Bush administration has never undertaken a sustained diplomatic initiative aimed either at inducing Iran to cease enriching uranium or at soothing broader US-Iranian tensions. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s persistent refusal to take military options “off the table,” combined with its intensified rhetoric against Iran, has made sanctions palatable to allies, as well as to some of the most dovish members of Congress and the American public—but without addressing the political disputes that keep the US and Iran on a collision course. Congress, by and large, has merely greased the skids.

Executive Orders

On September 28, the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council—Britain, China, France, Russia and the US—issued a joint statement, along with Germany and the European Union, agreeing to wait to discuss a potential third round of sanctions on Iran until International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana delivered progress reports on negotiations with Iran in November. No sooner had the IAEA released its November 15 report than the Bush administration renewed its push for stiffer penalties on the Islamic Republic.

US spokespersons seized upon the IAEA’s statement that Iranian cooperation with its investigators, while “sufficient” and “timely,” has been “reactive rather than proactive.” This “reactive” posture, along with Iran’s blockage of spot inspections of nuclear sites (as required by the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), made it impossible for the IAEA to assert that Iran’s program is geared exclusively toward peaceful generation of nuclear power, as Iran claims. The US dismissed the positive aspects of the Agency’s report. As State Department briefer Sean McCormack put it, “Partial credit doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about issues of whether or not Iran is developing a nuclear weapon.” While the report did not give Iran a clean bill of health, its overall content suggests that there is room for real diplomacy to resolve outstanding issues.

The Bush administration, however, had tipped its hand, long before the IAEA report’s release, that only additional coercive measures would be forthcoming. In August, it was leaked to the press that the State Department was considering designating the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps—created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to protect the Islamic Revolution from domestic and foreign foes—as a terrorist organization. European allies expressed strong opposition to the idea, warning that such a unilateral initiative could alienate Security Council member China, thus forestalling another round of UN sanctions. The end result was Bush’s executive order on October 25, imposing new unilateral sanctions and designating the Revolutionary Guards as a “proliferator of weapons of mass destruction” and the Guards’ elite Quds Force as a “supporter of terrorism.”

The basis for the latter designation was Executive Order 13224, which President Bush signed two weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks. That order authorizes the US government to block the assets of organizations or individuals listed as sponsors of terrorism, as well as their subsidiaries, front organizations, agents and associates. It is unprecedented for the United States to use this measure against the armed forces of another nation.

Several other entities were listed in the executive order, including the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics; two major banks and their subsidiaries; and construction, engineering and other firms owned or controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. Individuals affiliated with the Guards and with Iran’s ballistic missile program were also named as “proliferators” to be sanctioned. Most notably, and inexplicably, absent from this list was Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, appointed as commander of the Revolutionary Guards by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on September 1.

If Bush’s executive orders exacerbated the divisions among Security Council members over Iran, there is even more dissension following the release of the IAEA judgments. European allies have lined up behind the US position, with France and Britain saying that Europe could impose its own unilateral sanctions on Iranian oil and financial industries if the Security Council does not act. China and Russia, meanwhile, prefer to emphasize the progress that has been made in securing Iranian cooperation and have vowed to veto a third round of multilateral sanctions slated to come up for a vote in December. The parallels to the international deliberations over Iraq—wherein US failure to achieve consensus on sanctions was marketed by hawks as justification for ever more aggressive US-British actions—are hard to ignore.

Congressional Prelude

Throughout 2007, in fact, hawks in Congress have been intensifying their own pressure on the Bush administration to get tough on Iran. Section 2, Paragraph 14 of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, introduced by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, said “the United States should designate the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which purveys terrorism throughout the Middle East and plays an important role in the Iranian economy, as a foreign terrorist organization…and place the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on the list of weapons of mass destruction proliferators and their supporters.” The measure had 325 co-sponsors and passed the House of Representatives by a margin of 397-16 on September 25.

Though the bill nods to the view that “the United States should use diplomatic and economic means to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem,” it is focused on the necessity of broader unilateral sanctions. During floor debate, not a single representative spoke in opposition. The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), contains similar language, but has been held up in the Banking Committee. It is not clear when or if the measure will come up for a vote.

In any case, the far more important political cover for the executive order targeting the Revolutionary Guards was provided during debate of the 2008 defense authorization bill. Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced Amendment 3017, a non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution that expressed the view that the Guards should be labeled a terrorist organization, citing as justification the alleged role of the Guards and the Quds Force in supplying Shi‘i militias in Iraq with money and materiel.

The Kyl-Lieberman amendment initially contained even more provocative language, calling on the US to use all means available, including “military instruments,” to “combat, contain and roll back” Iran and its surrogates in Iraq. The two paragraphs containing this language were eventually dropped after several senators and the Democratic leadership expressed concern that it might be construed as an authorization for the use of military force against Iran.

Freshman Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) was particularly outspoken in opposition to the amendment, noting that even after the modifications, Kyl-Lieberman could still be interpreted as an authorization for the use of force. Nevertheless, on September 26, the amendment passed 76-22, with the Democratic presidential frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, voting in favor, her opponent Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois not voting and only two Republicans, Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, voting against. The amendment helped to press the Bush administration into action.

Hyping the Threat

Behind both the White House and Congressional moves is the conviction that Iran, its protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, is trying to build an atomic bomb. On October 17, the president told reporters: “If you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” In a speech at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy retreat four days later, Vice President Dick Cheney worded it more strongly: “The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences. The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

Is the US conviction about Iran justified? The IAEA does not think so. Its November 15 report concluded: “The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.” The concern, as the UN watchdog acknowledged, is that Iran may be diverting undeclared material to a clandestine bomb-making effort, but there is no proof that such an effort exists. As Mohamed Elbaradei told CNN on October 28, there are “a lot of question marks. But have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used in a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No.”

As in the leadup to the Iraq war, hawks are fond of portraying the IAEA as hapless—“the UN’s nuclear watchpuppy,” scoffs ex-Ambassador to the UN John Bolton—and implying that the US knows more about Iran’s capacities than is public. Yet the US has long delayed releasing an updated National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, requested by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2007 National Defense Authorization, which became law after it was signed by the president on October 17, 2006, reportedly because its conclusions are not alarming enough for the White House’s taste. The most recent administration estimate of Iran’s capability, delivered by then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte in February 2006, stated that if Iran continues on its current path, it could “produce a nuclear weapon within the next decade.” The findings of the special Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction further highlight issues of credibility, revealing that US intelligence on Iran is as bad or worse than it was on Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion.[1]

The primary justification for the designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a “proliferator of weapons of mass destruction” actually had less to do with nuclear materials, and more to do with ballistic missiles. According to the State Department fact sheet released to justify the designation, the Guards Corps has been “outspoken about its willingness to proliferate ballistic missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.” Ballistic missiles themselves certainly are not weapons of mass destruction, but the relevant executive order covers both “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them.” Iran’s ballistic missile program remains largely in its nascent stages, however. The US intelligence community has consistently estimated since 1999 that Iran will not have mastered the science of intercontinental ballistic missiles until 2015. At that point, Iran would still have to manufacture an arsenal of missiles and weapons to fit the missiles, putting the actual deployment date even further into the future. (Also, though the International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation and the Missile Technology Control Regime are voluntary mechanisms intended to discourage states from proliferating missile technology, there is no binding international treaty that prohibits Iran from developing its ballistic missile capability.)

Since Iran lacks the ability to reach the United States, the Bush administration has tried to focus attention on the “threat” of its shorter-range missiles. Just two days before the sanctions rollout, Bush delivered a speech at the National Defense University in which he spoke of Iranian “ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel and Turkey, as well as American troops based in the Persian Gulf.” He further cited the Iranian ballistic missile program as a justification for a heavier US military presence in Eastern Europe: “Today, we have no way to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat, so we must deploy a missile defense system there that can.”

Congress has been complicit in bolstering the perception of peril emanating from Iran’s missile program. On July 12, the Senate passed, by a vote of 95-0, an amendment introduced by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to the defense authorization bill. The amendment states that it should be the policy of the United States to develop and deploy, as soon as technologically possible, an effective defense against “the threat from Iran.” Congress has cut the entire $85 million in requested construction funding for the new missile defense sites in Europe, however, perhaps heeding Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ comment (made the same day of Bush’s speech) that such sites need not be operational until Iran actually tests missiles capable of flying overhead.

Disabling Engagement

The unilateral US steps were clearly intended to stoke the fears of Security Council members that, in the absence of stronger UN sanctions on Iran, the Bush administration might take additional measures on its own. In the short and medium term, however, the more important question is their effect on the behavior of the Iranian regime, and there they appear to be a mixture of the toothless and the counterproductive. The direct effect of the designations is to freeze assets of the named Iranian entities on deposit in US financial institutions, but it is unlikely that such assets exist.

As for indirect effects, the Bush administration’s prophecy of Iranian belligerence may be self-fulfilling: The Revolutionary Guards are deeply embedded in the country’s political and economic structure. They operate a vast and nebulous network that usually does not act in unison or take a single position. Both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and one of his stronger political opponents, 2005 presidential candidate and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, hail from the Guards’ ranks, for instance. Differences of opinion among the Guards very much reflect the broader disputes in Iran today: There are those who want greater openness and increased engagement with the outside world and those who do not.

Some members of the Revolutionary Guards have expanded their role in the formal economic arena, especially the oil and gas sector. These members have been badly affected by economic isolation and sanctions because of their need for external expertise to maximize their enterprises’ productivity. On the other hand, Guards who are involved in black-market activities, including oil and weapons smuggling, have no interest in increased engagement. For them isolation is a boon, as it is for the middlemen and brokers in Iran and Dubai who launder money and otherwise help businessmen in Tehran to skirt trade restrictions. US policies that pressure allies doing business in Iran play directly into the hands of enemies of engagement.

On the political level, of course, US sanctions allow hardliners to argue that moderates are deceiving themselves about the possibility of a rapprochement with the West. In the wake of the designations, many former Guards commanders who had been disillusioned with Ahmadinejad’s defiant stance have closed ranks behind him. Others have been silenced, the most prominent example being former Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei, whose Baztab website was shut down by the authorities for its criticism of the government.

Though it is unclear whether the Security Council will be able to reach agreement on a third round of sanctions, side effects of US unilateral sanctions are already visible. In November, the World Bank suspended $5.4 million of aid scheduled for projects in Iran until it can find financial institutions other than the blacklisted Bank Melli to handle the transactions. The aid package was intended to assist Iran with recovery from the deadly Bam earthquake in 2003, as well as with water treatment, environmental management and urban renewal. Also in November, corporate giants Yahoo! and Microsoft removed Iran from the country lists of their webmail services. Sanctions may not alter the behavior of the Iranian government, but they certainly hurt the people of Iran.

Silver Lining

One positive outcome of the October 25 designations is that they have reinvigorated efforts in Congress to put the brakes on the White House’s Iran policy. Following the administration’s announcements, Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC), Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), Ron Paul (R-TX) and Bill Delahunt (D-MA) held a press conference to introduce a bill designed to restore Congress’ role in declaring war. Along with two co-sponsors, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) also introduced a resolution stipulating that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly approved by Congress before such action may be initiated.”

Sen. Webb, who had broached a similar resolution in March, stepped up efforts to find co-sponsors for his own bill. After being attacked for her vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, Sen. Clinton signed up as a co-sponsor. Webb also initiated and sent a letter to Bush signed by 30 senators emphasizing “that no offensive military action would be justified against Iran without the express consent of Congress.”

While he did not sign Webb’s letter, presidential candidate Obama introduced his own resolution on November 2. It seeks to clarify that the use of force against Iran is “not authorized by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq, any resolution previously adopted, or any other provision of law.” Meanwhile, Sen. Hagel sent a personal letter to Bush on October 17 urging the president to “offer direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with Iran.”

Diplomatic Options

These pending resolutions and letters have not exactly tied the White House’s hands, but they do inject a vitally important point into the political discourse: Just as the notion that sanctions and economic pressure are diplomatic tools is flawed, so too is the notion that the only strategic choices before the US are war or capitulation. Such was the false choice posed by the Bush administration with regard to Iraq. There is in fact a wide array of alternatives available to the US for resolving tensions with Iran, but the political will to get to the negotiating table has been lacking on both sides.

To break the impasse, the US should determine which elements of the offer made by Iran in 2003 to settle outstanding disputes might remain a feasible basis for talks. Washington should also drop its insistence that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium before such talks can begin. In effect, this insistence transforms the outcome of negotiations into a precondition for starting them. Dropping the precondition would signal to both Iran and European allies that the US is sincere in its repeated expressions of preference for real diplomacy.

In the near term, the US could offer confidence-building measures to help bridge the enormous gap in trust between the two countries. At a minimum, the US should pledge non-interference in Iran’s domestic affairs, which is, in any case, its legal obligation under the terms of the Algiers accord signed in 1981 to end the hostage crisis. The Bush administration could repeal Office of Foreign Assets Control restrictions that prohibit US non-governmental organizations from obtaining licenses to work inside Iran, or offer to replace engine parts in the aging fleet of Iranian civilian aircraft. The US could also lift restrictions on visas, allowing for an increase in citizen exchanges, which would in turn foster the growth of constituencies in Iran calling for a government that is fully integrated into the international community.

For its part, Congress can divert to other programs the funding for “democracy promotion” in Iran in the foreign operations bill. The secrecy surrounding the distribution of these funds has created immense problems for Iranian reformers and human rights activists. Aware of their own deep unpopularity, the hardliners in Iran are terrified by the prospect of a “velvet revolution” and have become obsessed with preventing contacts between Iranian scholars, artists, journalists and political activists and their American counterparts. Such gestures may not be successful, but they are a risk worth taking in order to create the conditions necessary for advancing diplomatic engagement.

The Bush administration has insisted that the international community place the Iranian nuclear issue on the front burner. Yet the US itself has not directly engaged Iran in negotiations, preferring to farm out direct contacts to the European Union. Since Iran does not pose an imminent threat to either the US or its allies, it is unlikely that Iran would evoke so much international concern minus US pressure. There is time, albeit limited, for the US to desist from its punitive measures and its threats of more to come, and to pursue bold and tough-minded direct diplomacy instead.


Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report to the President of the United States, March 31, 2005, ch. 7, available online at


CORRECTION: Due to an editor's error, this article initially stated that Sen. Jim Webb is seeking co-sponsors for Sen. Richard Durbin's bill demanding Congressional approval for military action against Iran. He is seeking co-sponsors for his own bill. We regret the error.

How to cite this article:

Carah Ong "War Is Peace, Sanctions Are Diplomacy," Middle East Report Online, November 23, 2007.

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